Shake-out in Westminster

The British general election has slain many political assumptions about the leading parties and voter choices

On Wednesday night, the Union Chapel, a church in the central London borough of Islington that doubles as a popular and trendy music venue, played host to a different kind of stardom, as Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn held his last rally before Thursday’s general election. “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” and “Jez We Can” were among the loud, musical chants of the audience gathered there, while more stood outside unable to get in. Such gatherings across the country have been the trademark of Mr. Corbyn since his epic campaign to become leader of the Labour party in 2015, but were scoffed at in the early days by his opponents within and outside his party, convinced that his supporters were hardly representative of the wider British public.

That assumption was thrown out with the bathwater on Thursday night, along with hopes of a comfortable Conservative victory, as the election resulted in a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives losing seats. The rubber stamp on the Conservative track record that Prime Minister Theresa May had sought was nowhere in sight. By contrast the vote for Labour was up by over three million.

Holding off the right

Much uncertainty remains but there are a number of takeaways for Britain and beyond so far. First, the much-touted march of the right, vaunted by its proponents in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. last year, is far from inevitable. What is happening in Britain points to something far more complex at work in the West: widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo that doesn’t necessarily give into campaigns of fear and negativity pegged around immigration and Islamaphobia.

While the results and the preceding BBC exit poll came as a shock to many, the Conservatives could have looked back to the campaigns of the Brexit referendum to get a sense of where theirs may have floundered. Post-mortems of the Brexit campaigns had suggested that the Remain’s focus on scaring people about what a Britain outside Europe would suffer rather than making a positive case for membership was one of the factors that contributed to its failure, and such an approach was certainly the case with the Conservative campaign this time round. Initial attempts to send a positive message focussed on Ms. May’s track record quickly gave way to a highly personalised assault on Mr. Corbyn and other members of his team, with the Conservatives deriding the “coalition of chaos” that could result from the Labour Party working with others such as the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. It attempted to pour scorn on Labour’s spending plans and policies such as removing tuition fees for students, with the concept of a “Magic Money Tree.” However, the Conservatives failed to make much headway with this as the party did not provide detailed costings in its manifesto, and questions were raised about the financial viability of their programme, which counted heavily on cutting immigration, viewed by and large as a disaster by Britain’s business community. The negative campaigning was cleverly and humorously played on by Labour at times, which used social media to its advantage with great mastery, through the campaign. #LastMinuteCorbynSmears was doing the rounds in the days before the election result, as Labour supporters parodied some of the attempts by the tabloids and others to barrage people with scare stories about Mr. Corbyn and his policies.

The Corbyn transformation

By contrast, the Labour campaign focussed overwhelmingly on its aspirations to build a nation “For the Many, Not the Few,” cleverly shifting the debate away from Brexit to the impact that years of austerity, including for the past seven years under the Conservatives, had had on voters — from the schools their children attended to the pressures facing the National Health Service. Austerity even figured high in the debate around terrorism, with the Conservatives attempts to portray Mr. Corbyn as weak on security, failing to fully convince. They struggled as he shifted the focus back on them and the cuts that had been made to police forces over the past few years. In a television interview on Friday morning, even John Redwood, a Conservative MP to the right of the party, acknowledged the public appetite for greater spending on public services.

The results also question the common perception that politics and politicians don’t change over the course of the campaign, but merely reflect the sentiments that have ridden through it. Mr. Corbyn, a long-term passionate and principled politician who had taken up a range of causes over the years, from nuclear disarmament to cracking down on caste discrimination, proved able to juggle the different policies within his party. Some policies in the manifesto were ones that he had explicitly opposed in the past, such as the renewal of Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Wary in his early days of working with the mainstream media, Mr. Corbyn was increasingly willing to engage over the course of the election, joining in a televised debate that he and Ms. May had originally not intended to participate in. Such moves helped draw in Labour voters who had initially been sceptical of him, as well as win support from within influential party figures, such as Tony Blair’s ally Alastair Campbell.

Mr. Corbyn’s earnest and passionate style contrasted with Ms. May’s, as her attempt to position herself as a “bloody difficult woman” felt out of step with the mood of a country concerned about the ways in which negotiations over Brexit would pan out. Her refusal to take part in a televised debate, which Mr. Corbyn joined in at the last minute, accentuated that image, while moments captured of her on the election trail suggested she wasn’t fully engaged with the specific concerns of communities. That was the case with an interview with a journalist from a local newspaper in the port town of Plymouth, which went viral online, where genuine questions about local concerns about potential Brexit-related job cuts were met with unemotional, highly general responses.

The result will have a huge impact on the Labour Party going forward, putting paid to the assumption of many within the party, since the days of Mr. Blair, that being on centre ground was the party’s only hope of success. The Corbyn manifesto is a radical one, with pledges to renationalise key infrastructure, raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and revisit Britain’s interventionist foreign policy. The campaign has returned the British electoral system to one dominated by the two mainstream parties in a way it has not been for many years.

Questions on Brexit

With Brexit negotiations set to commence soon, the result will also raise fundamental questions about Britain’s Brexit strategy, though perhaps not in the way some had foreseen. The collapse of support for the right-wing UK Independence Party had been expected to benefit just the Conservatives, but Labour gained from them too, suggesting that the disillusionment that UKIP in part reflected did not necessary involve policies focused around cutting immigration. While Labour has pledged “fair rules and reasonable management of migration”, its immigration strategy would be a big departure from the tough Conservative approach, making allowances (significantly for India) for family reunions and a more welcoming environment for students. However, the results also suggested that there was limited public appetite for the Liberal Democrat pledge to hold a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, as the party failed to make the comeback it had hoped to. At the same time, Labour has pledged to rip up the Conservatives’ white paper and adopt a more conciliatory approach to the negotiations, which would include retaining the benefits of the single market and customs union.

Uncertainty is likely to continue in the coming days, but one thing is clear: political victory doesn’t always equal winning an election, and as Mr. Corbyn said on Friday, British “politics has changed and politics isn’t going back into the box it was in before.”


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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 12:32:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/shake-out-in-westminster/article18951469.ece

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